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Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Queen of Scots
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots
The historical drama focusing on British kings and queens was a popular genre in the 1960s. The cycle began with Becket (1964) and included A Man for All Seasons (1966) and The Lion in Winter (1968). One of the figures most associated with these films was Hal B. Wallis, the producer of Becket, Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Mary, Queen of Scots. Like other films in this genre, Mary, Queen of Scots focuses on the inter-relationship between two famous figures in British history, in this case Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth I of England.

Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) became Queen of Scotland in 1542, at just six days old. She was betrothed to the French King Francis II at a young age and when he dies she is left a widow at just 17. She returns from France to her home country of Scotland, but finds it very different from the world she is used to. Scotland is a smaller, poorer country which is unhappily split between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Expecting the red carpet treatment on arrival on a Scottish beach, she is quickly disabused of such notions by her illegitimate half-brother James (Patrick McGoohan), who tells her the country is too poor for such extravagance. On the way to Holyrood Palace she is harangued for her Catholicism by the Presbyterian preacher John Knox (Robert James) and when she arrives, she soon realises that James intends to rule Scotland himself with her as a figurehead.

Mary finds herself caught up in the machinations of her brother, the French and the English. The French want to use her to make a claim on the English throne. That claim makes her a serious rival to the Queen of England, Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson). So Elizabeth sends Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton) to Scotland in the hope that a relationship will develop between him and Mary. As Mary falls for Darnley, the political web in which she finds herself becomes increasingly entangled with her disastrous love life. Meanwhile, Mary is also threatened by Protestant plotters at home, led by Ruthven (Andrew Keir).

Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) and Darnley (Timothy Dalton)
Don't do it! Mary and Darnley's wedding
Mary's story is a fascinating one, and Mary Queen of Scots is a well mounted production with a strong cast. The film starts badly with a muddled beginning that throws too many names and too much information at the audience. In fact there is an awful lot of history in this film, and audiences need to pay attention to keep up with the political elements, the religious aspects and even with which marriages will produce children with rightful claims to the throne. But once it settles down, it becomes a mostly engaging story of court intrigue and political machinations.

The film is well cast. McGoohan's presence is rather unexpected, but he's fine as Mary's scheming brother, as is Nigel Davenport as her protector and later lover, Lord Bothwell. Timothy Dalton looks a little alarming in his unflattering blonde hairdo, and his character is such a clueless popinjay that you have to wonder what Mary ever saw in him. One of the best performances is from the ever-reliable Trevor Howard as Elizabeth's advisor William Cecil, but Howard is not exactly stretched and this is the sort of part he could probably play in his sleep by this time.

Mary, Queen of Scots reunited producer Wallis with the director, Charles Jarrott, and co-writer, John Hale, of his previous hit Anne of the Thousand Days. That film told the story of the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and this film was intended to repeat that success, which it did to some degree. The fine costumes are again designed by Margaret Furse, who won an Oscar for Anne of the Thousand Days, and she received her sixth nomination for this film. There's also a pleasingly low-key score by John Barry, who also received an Oscar nod for his efforts. The film was originally to be directed by former Ealing studios director Alexander Mackendrick (The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success), but production was halted before filming began. When the project was picked up again, Hal Wallis chose his previous collaborator Charles Jarrott to take over as director.

The film makes good use of British locations, and castle connoisseurs will recognise two of England's finest, Alnwick and Bamburgh, playing Scottish castles in the film, with the latter filmed from different angles to represent more than one. There is also an appearance by Hermitage Castle, the home of Lord Bothwell, playing itself.

Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson
Mary meets Elizabeth, in a scene the  history books forgot to include
Where the film falls down a little is the script. It's not entirely the writer's fault, because there are a lot of characters and events to be marshalled into a screenplay, but the central relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is problematic. The film should be a feast for two actresses in their prime and it clearly wants to follow in the footsteps of others in this genre that focus on the relationship between two key characters in British history. But that history presents some problems, the main one being that Mary and Elizabeth never actually met. In the film, though, they are given two meetings, one in secret in the countryside and another at Fotheringay Castle where Mary is imprisoned. But neither of these scenes comes to life or provides the drama the audience would expect, and neither is interesting enough to justify such serious deviation from the historical record.

The film also works a little too hard to try and draw parallels between the two and to create some sort of affinity between them, with Elizabeth portrayed as sympathetic to Mary, despite Mary being the centre of so many plots against her. The characterisation of the respective queens essentially resolves itself to some degree as masculine – tough, aggressive Elizabeth – versus feminine – trusting, romantic Mary. Of the two, Glenda Jackson comes off best as Elizabeth. Her Elizabeth is tough, scheming and manipulative. Redgrave's Mary is contrasted as naïve and headstrong, but I'm not sure that Redgrave ever quite gets a handle on her character and she certainly doesn't inhabit her as fully as Jackson does. Both actresses received Golden Globe nominations, but only Redgrave received an Oscar nod as best actress. Jackson, however, was in the process of making the part of Elizabeth I her own, playing her again in the acclaimed BBC TV series Elizabeth R the same year.

Mary, Queen of Scots appeared as the cycle of kings and queens historical dramas was winding down. This was partly because audience tastes were changing and partly because this type of drama was increasingly appearing on television instead. While the film is not one of the very best in the cycle, it's a very solid effort and a strong recommendation for fans of this genre.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Year: 1971
Genre: Biopic, Historical, Period drama
Country: UK
Director: Charles Jarrott

Cast Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots), Glenda Jackson (Queen Elizabeth), Patrick McGoohan (James Stuart), Timothy Dalton (Henry, Lord Darnley), Nigel Davenport (Lord Bothwell), Trevor Howard (William Cecil), Daniel Massey (Robert Dudley), Ian Holm (David Riccio), Andrew Keir (Ruthven), Tom Fleming (Father Ballard), Katherine Kath (Catherine De Medici), Beth Harris (Mary Seton), Frances White (Mary Fleming), Bruce Purchase (Morton), Brian Coburn (Huntly), Vernon Dobtcheff (Duc De Guise), Raf De La Torre (Cardinal De Guise), Richard Warner (Walsingham), Maria Aitken (Lady Bothwell), Jeremy Bulloch (Andrew), Robert James (John Knox), Richard Denning (Francis, King of France)

Screenplay John Hale  Producer Hal B. Wallis  Cinematography Christopher Challis  Production design Terence Marsh  Editor Richard Marden  Music John Barry  Costumes Margaret Furse

Running time 128 mins  Colour Technicolor  Widescreen  Panavision
Production company Universal Pictures Ltd  Distributor Universal


  1. A very good film. I think it should have focused a bit more on Mary acting/working as Queen, so that aspect of her balanced out more with Elizabeth(who we see a lot of working as Queen.) Solid performances, a gorgeous score by John Barry, and beautiful costumes. I agree with you about the depiction of them meeting, I guess it was done for dramatic effect, but isn't accurate from a historical perspective. Maddy

    1. Hey Maddy. I don't mind stretching the history a bit, but I don't think the film really earns it. Their meetings are a bit of a damp squib, and the real story has more than enough drama anyway without making stuff up.


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